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Learning for the Love of It

Intrigued by MOOCs but wondering what to take? Here’s what’s trending in courses.

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by Sarah Mahoney

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Midlife learning is easier than ever. Fueling the craze are fast-expanding MOOCs, a.k.a. massive online-learning classes, pioneered by such elite universities as Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan. Classes, taught by the very best professors, are often free. They’re easy to find, flexible enough to appeal to even the busiest midlife students, and best of all, low risk: If you hate it, just don’t finish.

In fact, while experts initially fretted that low completion rates for MOOCs meant they were letting students down, a new study from Harvard and MIT reports that while only 5 percent of students typically complete such classes, 54 percent explored at least half of the course materials. Sometimes, completion isn’t the point: Success is measured by whether students get what they want from their experience.

Mostly, that’s pleasure. “We know from our research that more than 50 percent of people pursuing online classes are doing it just for fun, to pursue a particular passion,” says Dean Tsouvalas, Editor-in-Chief of Student Advisor, owned by Kaplan University. For those looking to dive in for the first time, the options can be overwhelming. 

One of your first considerations should be whether you prefer real-time classes (synchronous) versus asynchronous, mean you can log in anytime that suits your schedule. “Some people are more motivated when a class is live,” says Tsouvalas, “while others prefer the flexibility of fitting the class in whenever they can.”

Next? Browse mightily. Learning Advisor, a partnership between Kaplan University and Life Reimagined, is a gateway to thousands of courses; you can follow a passion, or earn a certificate or degree.

“Course descriptions and the `about’ videos are a great way for people to find out more about the course and the topics,” says edX’s Nancy Moss. “And student reviews provide even more insight into the course experience and help others assess if the course is right for them.” (While most course descriptions include reviews, another good source is Course Talk, with evaluations of more than 17,000 classes.)

Moss also suggests recruiting a buddy: “Research shows that people who take classes with one or more friends do better in the courses overall,” she says.

Life Reimagined checked in with MOOC providers to find out what’s trending now for midlife learners:

Learn something hard, the easy way Modern & Contemporary American Poetry, one of Coursera’s most popular classes, driven by rave reviews, is taught by a University of Pennsylvania professor and requires no previous knowledge of poetry. The next session of the 10-week course is scheduled for September.

Feed your hobbies Udemy’s two most popular courses for those 40 to 60 are Karl Taylor’s photography class and its Photoshop tutorials, both free. From music to beekeeping, you can gain greater expertise in other activities you’re already passionate about. 

Tame technology Many of edX’s perennial favorites target those who want to learn more about computers. Introduction to Computer Science is a self-paced class with no prerequisites, offered by Harvard. It uses 9 problem sets, which take about 10 to 20 hours each, as well as a final project. Introduction to Linux, offered through edX and taught by The Linux Foundation, familiarizes students with every aspect of Linux, which powers so much of today’s computer architecture. The next class is scheduled to begin in August, and takes an estimated 40 to 60 hours to complete.

Find a new career, or get better at the one you have At Udemy, where all classes are self-paced, many of the most in-demand classes are career-focused. One of the most popular (and top-rated) paid classes, for example, is How to Build An Online Teaching Career and Make Passive Income ($499). Another big hit? Photoshop – Beauty Retouching ($49). 

Get practical insight The Khan Academy, committed to bringing a world-class education to everyone everywhere, says the most popular classes among those 40 to 60 include How does social security work? and Is it better to buy or rent a home?

Tease your brain Two Khan classes that also have broad appeal among midlifers are fun problem-solvers: Can you beat Monty Hall? Then let’s make a deal!, and the economic lessons contained in The Prisoner’s Dilemma: Would you confess?  

Make learning fun Classes like Khan’s Beware the Ides of March: A tour of Ancient Rome. or Benjamin Franklin and Poor Richard’s Almanac offer snack-sized bites of history.

Thinking of finally adding that B.A.? Kaplan’s Documenting Your Experience for College Credit is self-paced and free.

Photo credits Woman through keyboard: Roy Botterell/Getty.,Woman at computer: David Troncoso/Getty.House for Sale: Camerique/Corbis,Monty Hall: Everett Collection,Two people studying: E+/Getty,Roman Ruin: Image Source/Corbis ,Prisoner: E+/Getty